Last week’s Samsung Unpacked event in San Francisco marked the 10-year anniversary of Samsung’s Galaxy phone. The Galaxy’s original introduction ushered in a new age of “phablets,” turning Samsung into one of the most dominant mobile manufacturers in the world. With a splashy Broadway show-like announcement at the cavernous Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, complete with special lighting and audio effects, it was easy to focus on merely the new smartphones (especially the Galaxy Fold, the talk of the show). A closer look at last week’s event, however, provides a telling glimpse into Samsung’s smart home and ecosystem strategy.
New Galaxy smartphones are undeniably cool
Let’s get this out of the way: the new flagship Galaxy S10 lineup offers several new features that are not just stunning, but practical and well-designed. These include an under-display ultrasonic fingerprint sensor, 6 cameras (three in front and three in the rear), removal of the infamous “notch,” a breathtaking high-resolution “Infinity O” edge-to-edge display, and the ability to wirelessly charge other devices by “stacking” them. I won’t go into a full-blown review of the multiple new S10 models, but suffice to say the new Galaxy S10 phones will have Apple playing catch-up from a sheer technical feature standpoint.
Promoting Samsung’s vision in the smart home
Several messages conveyed during the event spoke volumes of where Samsung believes the smart home is headed. First, consider that the new Samsung phones feature its own highly sophisticated neural processing unit and next-generation wireless capability known as Wi-Fi 6 (otherwise known as 802.11ax). Samsung’s belief (and I think it is on solid ground with this assertion) is that the Samsung Galaxy S10 phones offer professional-grade photography technology that eliminates the need for a second camera. The lens on the Samsung high-end S10 models provides a multi-camera perspective that I believe will change the way many consumers take pictures and shoot videos. My favorite feature is the ability to shoot ultra-wide 123-degree panoramic photos without moving (something you must do with other smartphones, including the high-end Apple 10). Professional video capture (especially live-action footage) is also enhanced with “super steady” functionality, aided by the S10’s AI and predictive software capability. While I’m not a huge selfie person, I really liked the S10’s ability to detect faces automatically and take stunning self-portraits that frankly don’t seem possible from a depth of field standpoint.
Samsung’s foray into the new smartphone “foldable” category is also noteworthy from a smart home implications standpoint. While the Galaxy Fold will delight many consumers with its ability to quickly convert from a standard smartphone with a 4.6” screen to tablet-size 7.3” display when opened, its opening price point of $1,980 clearly makes it a first-generation, early adopter product. Still, it underscores Samsung’s strong belief that “bigger is better” when it comes to screen size; these types of large form factors are becoming the preferred way to consume video entertainment. With rumors that Apple will be refreshing its aging iPad Mini (which sports a 7.9” form factor), it will be interesting to see if the emerging smartphone foldable form factor category will put pressure on the need for smaller tablets.
Galaxy Buds and new Samsung smartwatches fly under the radar
Though the new Galaxy smartphone models got much of the media’s attention, there were other important smart home-related announcements at the Samsung Unpacked event that unfairly received the Rodney Dangerfield treatment. Samsung announced its new Galaxy Buds, giving a pair to all the event’s attendees. I spent the weekend playing with them and I can say that they are a pleasant alternative to Apple AirPods, with very good audio quality. I found them quite light, with decent battery life (I was able to get almost 6 hours out of a single battery charge). The feature I really liked was the ability to wirelessly charge the Buds (something you can’t do with AirPods) via its case, utilizing the S10’s wireless charging feature. The Galaxy Buds are priced at $130 and will ship in early March.
Samsung also announced two new wearable devices at the event: the Galaxy Watch Active, positioned to manage all your typical fitness needs, and the Galaxy Fit, a discreet and bare-bones fitness tracker purportedly the weight of a typical strawberry. While I didn’t have much time to play with these devices in the event’s demo room, it’s clear that Samsung is trying to provide ecosystem alternatives to Apple’s highly successful Watch family. Samsung indicated that the Watch Active will be priced $199 when it becomes available in early March and the Galaxy Fit will be sold at $99 when it hits retail shelves in May.
I also found it revealing that Samsung will be offering PC-class storage levels in the new Galaxy S10 models (upwards of 1TB), albeit on the pricey high-end models. While it’s hard to fathom that even the most tech-savvy user would need that level of local storage (not to mention the ability to add optional storage via the use of a microSD card), it is easy to start conjuring up scenarios where your smartphone, with an external keyboard and external display, could be used for PC-like productivity applications. While the vision of how a smartphone might morph into a potential PC replacement is certainly not new, Samsung showed off Android multi-window functionality on the Fold—a crucial ability for a genuine PC replacement. For its part, Apple has continued to promote a productivity vision for iOS, especially with the iPad. If the rumors are to be believed, iOS apps may run on MacOS someday. I expect the next iteration of iOS (which will be unveiled at Apple’s Worldwide Developer’s Conference in June) will adopt more intuitive file management and “windowing” capabilities.
Samsung’s leadership introduction of a 5G S10 model shows that the company’s smart home vision is putting products that exploit the additional bandwidth offered by 5G front and center. One of the cooler (and immersive) 5G demos I witnessed at Unpacked was the ability to rotate the cameras of a baseball game in real time. This sort of thing is only possible with a 5G-equipped phone and network.
At the end of the day, it’s easy to get excited about what Samsung announced last week, particularly if you’re interested in the phones themselves. While the vision that Samsung espouses will take a few years to play out, the “under the hood” technology portends an exciting future for the smartphone in the smart home. Whether we’re talking about faster cellular and in-home wireless support, larger (and foldable) displays, AI-based professional-grade camera and video functionality, or the expanding positioning of Android as a productivity OS platform, there’s a lot of good things happening here. It will be fascinating to see how Apple responds.